Insomniac Games’ new Spider-Man adventure on the PS4 is a fun comic book brawler with some good story beats elevated by a system of acrobatics that features some of the most intuitive and exhilarating movement I’ve ever experienced in a game. It’s extremely fun, if you’re okay with a version of New York City that is bursting with life when viewed from above but whose dazzling beauty is mostly only skin deep.
This post originally appeared 9/4/18. We’re bumping it for Spider-Man’s release today.
The game is mostly about Spider-Man cleaning, fixing or removing things that stain the city: a construction site of corrupt Kingpin thugs, one of Mister Negative’s garages housing military-grade firearms, a carjacking on Broadway, thieves breaking into jewelry store in the Diamond District, a cadre of lethal, malfunctioning Oscorp drones. At the beginning of the game Manhattan is checkered with criminal hideouts, mini-environmental crises, and old Spidey backpacks filled with mementos from days past. To play Spider-Man is to spend your time systematically wiping each of these nodes off the map through a series of main missions and side-activities woven together into a conventional but entertaining comic book plot surrounding a cadre of familiar Spider-Man foes.
All of these repetitive activities are made not only bearable, but in fact breathtaking, by just how great it feels to be Spider-Man in Spider-Man. The game is a sandbox platformer that emphasizes learning how to utilize incredible gymnastic abilities with deft ease so the titular hero can be the godlike janitor Insomniac’s New York needs. While that’s not all the game could be, it is, frankly, enough. I’ve never been much for completionism before, but the running, jumping, and web slinging in this game made me a temporary convert.
Most of the problems plaguing New York when the game begins originate from a turf war between construction mogul Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin) and philanthropist turned supervillain Martin Li (Mister Negative). From there the game retreads existing Spider-Man lore in a slightly new permutation. Protagonist Peter Parker is a scientist who spends days in a makeshift lab working on a new project. His Aunt May works in a homeless shelter called F.E.A.S.T. Mary Jane Watson is an investigative reporter at the Daily Bugle, where she routinely breaks into dangerous places to land Pulitzer-worthy scoops.
When the game starts, Parker is struggling to work on his research while making time to volunteer with May. He’s also trying to dismantle the city’s criminal underground alongside a captain in the NYPD, Yuri Watanabe, who feeds him police intel. By the end his world is turned upside down. The game occasionally raises political questions as well about how a city should be organized and run, but its answers to those aren’t nearly as satisfying as the conclusion of its superhero vs. supervillain plot.
If Spider-Man’s main story campaign were the first season in a Spider-Man Netflix series I’d be eagerly awaiting the second. That’s a credit to the game’s storytelling, which is presented through well-acted scenes that make the stakes feel meaningful even for side characters who don’t get much screen time. The game’s amalgamation of Spidey stuff is refreshing and not overly enamored with its source material. Everyone’s motivations make sense, and many of the most seemingly evil characters, like Mister Negative, are bestowed a sympathetic wrinkle to keep them from veering too hard into the absurd.
I’d also be awaiting the second season because interesting plot revelations regarding some of the game’s side characters, specifically the Osborn family, end on a cliffhanger. Plenty of the most notable villains from the comics also make appearances, but they’re so brief they border on cameos rather than satisfying B plots. Throughout my playthrough I stopped to complete short Black Cat related collectibles only to learn at the end it was nothing but table setting for a future Felicia Hardy storyline coming in the first DLC.
The main story is sequestered from the rest of the game. Something urgent could be happening half way across the map, which extends from the southern tip of the Financial District to the southern half of Harlem, but it won’t unfold until you actually go there, leaving you free to explore the city in-between major missions. These levels themselves include their fair share of crawling through vents, running up elevator shafts, and explosive set pieces you won’t find anywhere else in game, which makes them both a nice change of pace but also leaves some of their mechanics and locations underutilized. A stealth section midway through the game in Grand Central station does an especially good job of changing up the regular ass-kicking formula to suit the narrative constraints of the moment, but the location and its ideas are immediately retired once it’s over.
The game’s other half consists of a litany of side activities which light up the game’s virtual Manhattan like a Christmas tree. They’re unlocked by unscrambling receiver towers atop police stations across the city. These side tasks range from the predictable beating-up-all-the-bad-dudes-in-a-place to chasing drones along particular paths using precision web slinging. Completing them earns tokens that can be spent on new suits, powers and upgrades. Any banality to this side stuff is fine, though, because all of it leans into game’s excellent web slinging and fluid combat.
Web slinging is simple. Press one button to hook to the nearest perch and another to fire webs laterally and propel yourself forward and maintain altitude. There’s just enough friction to make it feel substantial. Smack into the side of a building, and you’ll start running along it. Hang onto a web without letting go, and you’ll eventually start swinging backwards. It is incredibly easy and straightforward, while also having small nuances that give it a learning curve, like being a child on a swing for the first time.
Early on I relied too much on constantly flicking the right trigger or mashing X to launch a new web and keep propelling myself forward, never holding the buttons long enough to shift Spider-Man’s weight at the right times and achieve an optimal speed. Eventually I learned the simple but unique rhythms of each web movement, stringing them together at their natural end points together like a free-jumping trapeze artist. To hang a sharp right through somewhere like Time Square I’d let the natural flow carry Spider-Man farther than I wanted, knowing that letting my last maneuver run its proper course would make it easier to snap back in a new direction.
Once I learned the timing, it was easy to stitch moves together into a graceful choreography that let me preserve enough momentum to whip myself wherever I wanted. I felt as if I’d been Spider-Man all my life. By the end, I was intimately acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of how Spider-Man’s body moves when different vectors of force are applied, feeling my way to the optimal points in an arc or freefall and shooting another web onto a another ledge or street light to maintain a graceful flow.
Combat is also slick. Punching, dodging, and webbing enemies all fit together in a seamless dance that grows more complex as new gadgets get added. As in web slinging, there are situational elements to the controls that lead to minor changes in outcomes depending on timing. Holding square will knock an enemy into the air, while holding triangle will tug an enemy forward and stagger them. If you’re in the air, holding square lets you perform a web-swing kick. Perfectly dodging an attack at the right moment, meanwhile, will lead you to automatically web the attacker and set up for a longer counter combo. Fights sometimes feel like playing an instrument rather than robotically inputting controller commands. It doesn’t bore. Webbing enemies to walls, dodging rockets, and building up a combo meter to unleash cinematic instant takedowns remains thrilling a hundred brawls in.
As impressive as the taut and responsive feel of the underlying mechanics is, Spider-Man’s Manhattan is equally breathtaking. Going from Wall Street to Central Park feels like an epic undertaking, as it should, but one worth accepting due to the intoxicating specificity and civic grandeur of everything in-between. Throughout the game’s version of New York City, a menagerie of architectural details and lighting effects create striking scenery worth swinging through. Time Square at night fizzes with car lights and neon signs. The sunrise to the east of Manhattan spills light over the bay and spits across skyscrapers in a beautiful collision of nature and civilization that would make almost anyone want to move to the big city. The whole thing reminded me of Billie Holiday singing “Autumn in New York.” “Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel: They’re making me feel I’m home”
Several details combine to do a masterful job of making Spider-Man’s New York bridge the gap between the New York that actually exists and the one needed to make being Spider-Man as mesmerizing a spectacle as possible. Glass-faced buildings reflect approximations of their surroundings and make the city look dynamic and shimmering. Windows that Spider-Man crawls over can be peered through, revealing the color of the fridge in an apartment or how many chairs are at a modest dining room table. People on the sidewalk ask you for high fives, which you can grant by pressing one of the buttons you’d normally use to punch someone. Police chases, burglaries, and muggings spontaneously break out when you’re close by to give you a part to play on the streets below. Though expensive-looking and well-produced, the game’s virtual city rarely moves beyond Truman Show territory, always giving the sense that whatever is happening is happening for your benefit. And though being able to run from one side of the island to the other without any loading screens is a neat trick, it doesn’t make up for a lack of unscripted human drama in-between. The city life feels over-planned and ultimately doesn’t live up to the visual detail and splendor. . What’s the point of visiting New York, after all, if you never get to know it more intimately than the stock photos on the travel brochure?
The game’s New York is far from a perfect simulation. Fashion is not a strong suit of most of the residents in Spider-Man’s New York. I’ve seen more black suits and brown sweaters in a few square blocks than I have during all my time in the real one. Faux-Islander jerseys show up time and again, easily spottable amidst the sea of grimey earth tones. On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed two different pedestrians wearing the same outfit standing or walking within a few feet of each other, creating the feeling there’s been a glitch in the Matrix. Crawl too intently across too many building windows and you’re likely to see the contents of an apartment transform depending on whether you’re looking in from the left or the right. They are small details that don’t undermine the larger impression of an overwhelming coastal city, but they are symptomatic of the fact that there’s very little beneath Spider-Man’s surface.
Its Manhattan, though dazzling to behold in brief, web slinging glimpses, feels empty up close. Long stretches of the city are bereft of any opportunity for interaction—no museum doors to open, lunch trucks to buy falafel from, or shows to attend. It’s filled with mobs of anonymous people always walking somewhere but never doing much. For the most part there’s an invisible line separating their world from Spider-Man’s, with the latter’s job simply being to keep them safe and as uninterrupted while they go about their programmed patrols as possible.
Spider-Man spends most of his time in the game cleaning up mobs of bad guys, saving motorists from burning cars, and accumulating a host of collectibles that attest to his progress in making New York the shining city on a hill every other comic book-inspired metropolis wishes it could be. In the fiction of the game, Peter Parker ostensibly spends part of his days as a 20-something trying to make a career in advanced robotics. We see little of that. While Spider-Man opens on the complex mess of a life splayed out across Parker’s living quarters, an overdue rent notice slipped under his door, he never gets much time to clean up his own mess of a life. In fact, very early in the game he gets evicted from it, and henceforth most domestic concerns are banished from his mind and the game.
When real life comes knocking, Parker runs away in search of bad guys to punch. This has always been the MO of superheroes, but in a game with as much scale as this one, it hurts the the game that he can never venture inside 99% of the buildings he scales or embark on a side-quest that doesn’t revolve around his web-slinging prowess. The 1% he does get into are only ever for the purposes of stopping the villains inside or sparking the next cutscene before leaving again. What I’ve always loved about Spider-Man is witnessing a discombobulated kid try to do the right thing while managing the social costs of leading a double life. In the majority of Spider-Man he only leads one.
Past games could be forgiven for failing to explore the Parker side of SpiderMan given their limitations, but even 2014’s dismal movie tie-in Amazing Spider-Man 2 let players come and go from Peter Parker’s home as they pleased. Spider-Man could be forgiven for cordoning off those possibilities from the jump, but it doesn’t, opening with a sumptuous, cinematic tour of an apartment players never got to explore while later confining my time as Parker to solving logic problems in the lab or catching up with May in the homeless shelter.
There are hints of how much more interesting some added focus on the stresses of Parker’s life could have been. At one point Parker talks about taking Mary Jane Watson out on a date where ever she wants as long as that place has a dollar menu. It’s both an incredibly Spider-Man line and a very real thing people dating in New York have to contend with, and I’d have liked to see that struggle play out as vividly as my aerial web-slinging fights.
I’ve always loved Spider-Man and never questioned why. A man who fights crime with super strong, elastic silly string and who loves puns a little too much? Sure. Playing Spider-Man though is the first time I ever considered just what is both so uncanny but obviously appealing about the character. When it comes to creating a superhero, I wouldn’t put transferring exaggerated versions of a spider’s abilities onto a person high on my list. Spiders are gross and their webs do not seem especially useful for capturing anything that’s not dumb enough to fly into them.
The main appeal of this new Spider-Man as a game isn’t the ability to immobilize and cocoon enemies. It’s being able to shoot a web at something and close the space in-between, either by pulling it closer or moving closer to it. Those webs are the satisfaction of desire in one of its most simple but symbolic forms. Want the remote that’s sitting in the chair across the room? Shoot a web at it. Want to get to the end of the block quicker during your commute? Shoot a web at it. Want to save the love of your life from falling to certain doom? *Thwip Thwip*
Where the game falls short is in showing the parts of Spider-Man’s life, the Peter Parker ones, that can’t be easily reconciled by shooting another perfectly timed web. Insomniac’s version of the hero is no stranger to emotional turmoil, but none of it exists outside of the safe confines of the main Hollywood blockster plot where it’s momentarily unleashed and then quickly resolved a few scenes later. Falling behind on the rent or stretching yourself too thin so you have nothing left over for the people that matter isn’t something that can fixed by earning all of the collectibles. In his regard, the game pedals a naivete which feels at home in the neat and tidy New York it takes place in but unbefitting of the real one. Too often, the scope of the game’s open world feels disappointingly narrow.
But as an engine for satisfying the simple desires associated with arcadey brawls and platforming challenges, the game works amazingly well. Spider-Man can stick to, run up, and jump off of just about every surface in the game, and whether it’s stopping a subway train or cleaning up a pool of toxic algae at the park, completing each little task feels rewarding, because at the end of the day, diving off the Empire State building and swinging through the streets below as Insomniac’s Spider-Man is one of the single coolest and best feeling things I’ve ever done in a game.
As a playground for one of the most idiosyncratic superheroes of all time, Marvel’s Spider-Man is sheer bliss. It’s a sandbox platformer first and foremost, and a damn good one. Throughout playing the game I was constantly hounded by the question of whether these—sublime superhero traversal in a gorgeous, idealized version of New York—were enough. After countless hours spent cleaning up every last icon on the map, I’m convinced they are.